Artist Exploration

Over the Rhine – What a Beautiful Piece of Heartache.

Over the Rhine in Charlotte, NC. Image credit: halah1.geo - https://www.flickr.com/photos/six-a/

Over the Rhine has always held a special place in my heart. While there have been times when I didn’t listen to their music much, there have been also been times when I listened to them almost exclusively. Right now, I listen to them intermediately, about the same amount as They Might be Giants. Just enough to hear their beauty.

Hailing from Ohio, and claiming their name from a Cincinnati neighborhood where they used to live, Over the Rhine has been around since the late 80s.  Originally a quartet, the band has since evolved to husband and wife duo, Linford Detweiler and Karin Berquist. What makes Over the Rhine, aka OTR, special? And what do they sound like? Why should I listen to them right now? I’ll answer the first two questions with the rest of the article – but as far as the third question, I’ll say that they’re great music to listen to on a cold, late fall night. So cuddle up with a blanket and a warm beverage, and let’s explore Over the Rhine.

“Like A Radio” – Till We Have Faces (1991) 

I’ll be honest – I’m not a huge fan of Over the Rhine’s first album, “Till We Have Faces.” Still – “Like a Radio” still holds its place as my favorite OTR lovesong.

This song instantly draws you in with the otherworldly sounds of a radio station from a bygone era. As the intro ends, and the actual song begins – we hear a ballad of someone confused about their feelings. These feelings scare the singer – but they still want to pursue their feelings, and who these feelings lead to.

“Like A Radio” really is a beautiful lovesong. The chorus, which the song takes its name, is particularly interesting. The singer wants to “sing inside” of their lover’s house. They want to be the radio – the source of solace, entertainment, and beauty to which their lover turns to. 

“Rhapsodie” – Patience (1992)

While I said “Like a Radio” is my favorite Over the Rhine lovesong, I have to say that “Rhapsodie” might be the most gorgeous sounding. “Rhapsodie,” also a ballad, features two key elements of OTR’s music: Karin’s amazing vocal range, and Linford’s heartfelt piano. 

Ultimately, the lyrics of “Rhapsode” are pretty basic. “And I could not love you anymore than I do right now.” There’s a few other lyrics found scattered through the verses, but the chorus is essentially the thesis. Really – “Rhapsodie” is about the sound more than anything – the lyrics just aren’t that important.

“Sleep Baby Jane” – Eve (1994)

Over the Rhine might like to sing about love stories, but they’ve also got a darker side. Sleep Baby Jane emphasises that darker side. Let’s take a look at verse one:

Suicide suicide
Katie’s talking suicide
Homicide homicide
Mama killed my man
Turpen3eeededeeddtine turpentine
Potion for my valentine
Take a ride and take it
In a long black hearse

Sleep Baby Jane lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

Yeah – and that’s only verse one. The music sounds pretty dark as well.  The instrumentation relies heavily on the lows of the bass guitar. The rest of the instrumentation is repetitive. The verses are more spoken than sung. The choruses are sung as though they were a dark lullaby – up until the last third of the song – where Karin sings in a higher octave. Her screaming vocals almost sounds like a murder weapon.

This happens to be the first OTR song I heard, which probably explains why I love this band so much. I remember peering over the lyrics, trying to figure out what the song actually means. For the life of me – I still don’t have an answer. I just know “Sleep Baby Jane” might be the darkest song in Over the Rhine’s catalog.

“The Seahorse” – Good Dog, Bad Dog (1996)

By now, you probably understand that Karin Berquist uses her voice differently than most singers – her voice serves as an instrument. In “The Seahorse,” we hear a classic example of this vocal instrumentation. Aside from Karin’s vocals – the song sounds very minimalistic. Two acoustic guitars – that’s it. Yet with Karin’s vocals, we feel like an entire band plays “The Seahorse.”

“Latter Days” – Good Dog, Bad Dog (1996)

I stole the title for this article from the lyrics of “Latter Days,” mainly because the song really does describe the band so well. Yes – this is a lovesong (assumedly) between Berquist and Detweiler, but despite the love song – they know the world is a cold, heartless place. Just because they have love does not mean they’re immune to cruelty – maybe even cruelty from each other.

As far as the sound of “Latter Days” we hear the minimalism found throughout the entirety of “Good Dog, Bad Dog.” We don’t hear the heavy guitars and bass found in the first three albums.

We do hear, once again, the song relying so heavily on Karin’s voice – and this comforts us. As we hear all the dark lyrics, we realize everything really will be ok. Despite the toll we’ve taken these latter days.

“The World Can Wait” – Films for Radio (2001)

Comparing “The World Can Wait” to the songs from “Good Dog, Bad Dog,” we almost wonder if we’re hearing a different band. “The World Can Wait,” and almost every song from “Films for Radio” sounds a lot more produced and does not rely on the minimalism of songs such as “The Seahorse.”

Maybe we really are dealing with a different band. It’s been five years since their last studio album. A lot changed in the world, and I’m sure a lot had changed in the band’s lives – for one thing, Over the Rhine had officially become a duo.

While these things deal nothing with what “The World Can Wait” actually says – I feel the differences in the two albums says quite a lot already. From minimalism, to a more produced sound. From a quartet to a duo. “The World can Wait” shows us everything has changed with Over the Rhine.

“The Body is a Stairway of Skin” – Films for Radio (2001)

“The Body is a Stairway of Skin” might be the most experimental songs Over the Rhine has recorded. Despite the heavy production of the rest of “Films for Radio,” we actually hear a pretty minimal instrumentation. The rhythm sounds very jazzlike. The lyrics sound sensual.

Still – we’re not sure what the lyrics actually mean. Like I said – there’s a very sensual sound to the lyrics, but we’re also told “Breaking / Is the one thing / We all fear / Breaking is the one thing.” Breaking sounds more like violence and less like sensuality.  Maybe the meaning of the song doesn’t matter. Maybe the song should be taken as a spoken word poem – maybe the real meaning comes from the feelings we get when we hear the song. 

“Lifelong Fling” – Ohio (2003)

I chose “Lifelong Fling” as part of “Ohio’s” representation because it’s the first song I remember hearing from the album. I listened to all eight tracks before I reached “Lifelong Fling,” and I still love these songs. Still, something about “Lifelong Fling” song really stood out to me.

Maybe the alt-country slide guitars meets jazz pianos of “Lifelong Fling.” Maybe the poetic lyrics. I do remember the phrase “and the space he’s in that can make a girl grin,” and how just the sound of these lyrics gave me a shiver.  Regardless – the song still makes me feel amazing, even now. 

“Cruel and Pretty” – Ohio (2003)

“Cruel and Pretty” is truly one of the saddest, yet most beautiful songs in the Over the Rhine Catalog. We get a picture of an old married couple, saying their final goodbyes. They’re just as madly in love with each other as they were when they were young. And yet they already have plans of meeting “in the backstreet’s of heaven.” How bittersweet.

“Born” – Drunkard’s Prayer (2005)

With the entirety of “Drunkard’s Prayer,” we once more get a scaled down version of Over the Rhine. After Ohio, the couple took a sabbatical from their music to work on their life together. After they returned to their music, they produced an album reflective of this time in their lives.

“Born” especially gives us an example of a humble, innocent, and loving sense of couplehood – perhaps born out of this time off. One of the things I respect in a musician – if they can show me their soul, This is exactly what Over the Rhine does with “Born.”

“Trouble” – The Trumpet Child (2007)

“The Trumpet Child was a fun album, pure and simple. The album was also a lovesong – not to each other – but rather from Over the Rhine to music itself. This particularly can be found in the song “Trouble.” 

Karin’s vocal style finds itself in sort of a jazz club styling, while the composition of the actual song takes a cue from several latin musical genres. We get so caught up in the sounds of the song, we almost forget to listen to the lyrics – and that’s kind of the point. One line in particular states “We’re so precarious with semantics / I think this could be trouble.” This lyrics is just one of a plethora of interesting words that seem shoehorned into the “Trouble.”  But through all these poetics, we get a clear message from “Trouble:” simply shut up and dance!

“If a Song Could be President”  – The Trumpet Child (2007)

When I first heard “If a Song Could be President,” I thought it was the dumbest song Over the Rhine has ever written. While the song is indeed silly (although not as silly as “Poopsmith“), my first inclination of the song was wrong. “If a Song Could be President” says a lot of wise and amazing things.

“If a Song Could be President” longs for a world that built on harmony and mutual understanding. A world that values music over the need to be right. “If a Song Could be President” dares to dream of the impossible. If I could, I would indeed vote for a song as president.

“The Laugh of Recognition” – The Long Surrender (2010)

“The Laugh of Recognition” recognizes that even the darkest things in life sometimes make us laugh. No, it isn’t saying that these things are funny per se – but rather these dark things make us think and ponder in a way we wouldn’t normally. These things make us laugh out of disbelief. These things make us realize – this is life. Sometimes life sucks, and sometimes all we have at the end of the day is laughter – even if that laughter is at our own, troubled lives.

“All Over Ohio” – Meet me at the Edge of the World (2013)

‘All Over Ohio” might just be the most Over the Rhine song ever written. The song, a duet between Linford and Karin, discuss the band’s hopes and fears. The song discuss their music career, their beloved home state of Ohio, and their history. 

At times “All Over Ohio” sounds humorous, at times the song sounds sad. We hear about their religion, and of the perversion of their religion. We hear about nightmares. The song talks about the flooding of their farm, and the metaphors said flooding induces. “All Over Ohio” gives us layers and layers of meaning. Some meaning is on the surface, some meaning we have to dig for.

Over the Rhine’s Christmas shows

My timing in writing this article happens to coincide with a few upcoming shows. Next week, Over the Rhine will hit the west coast – including Seattle, Berkley, West Hollywood, Eugene, and my home town of Portland. I’ll admit – I’m pretty excited. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen them play live. They have a few other shows coming up in the Midwest as well. For more information, be sure to check out their tour page.

I hope you enjoyed this artist exploration. I have a few others planned – but I’m also open to suggestions. So if you have an artist you want me to explore, especially an artist that has been around for a bit which does not get enough recognition, leave a comment below.  There’s no restrictions on genres, in fact, I value diversity. Considering that my last artist exploration was on the band Ween – well – juxtapose them with Over the Rhine. Yeah – there’s diversity for ya!